If you habitually crave eating cornstarch, you might have a disorder called pica. Pica is a craving for substances not culturally defined as food such as dirt, chalk, paper, charcoal or raw starches. The type of pica in which someone consumes raw starches, such as cornstarch, is called amylophagy.
Not much is known about the causes of pica — another form of which is eating laundry starch — but it can be an indication that you have anemia or an iron or zinc deficiency. The causal direction is still unclear: Scientists don't know whether pica causes these mineral deficiencies or whether the deficiencies cause pica. Because of this, steer clear of eating large amounts of raw cornstarch.
Adolescents and pregnant women are at a higher risk for pica. If you think you have pica, consult a medical professional who will be able to administer blood tests to check if you have anemia or zinc or iron deficiency. Your health care provider can also see if there is a link between your craving for cornstarch and pica.
That said, raw cornstarch is edible in small quantities and has even been used in medical interventions to diminish cravings and glucose spikes in people with Type 2 diabetes and hypoglycemia. Though this is the case, commercial cornstarch lacks nutrition in the form of fiber, protein, fats, minerals and vitamins so it is not a good choice if you are looking for nutritious carbohydrates to add to your diet.
You should not eat raw cornstarch, as it is linked to anemia and iron deficiency and may cause digestive issues such as gas and bloating. Raw cornstarch may also harbor harmful bacteria which can cause food-borne illnesses; cook it to ensure it is safe to consume.
What Is Cornstarch?
Composing more than 50 percent of your carbohydrate intake, starch — which is mainly found in plant walls — is an important component of the human diet. Cassava and potatoes are high in starch, as are grains such as wheat, oats, rice, millet and corn.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, every grain, including corn, has three main parts: the germ, bran and endosperm. When these three components are separated during milling, the end product is no longer considered "whole grain."
The bran and germ are highly nutritious as they contain most of the fiber, fats and B-vitamins of grains. Cornstarch is made solely from corn's endosperm, which is high in starch, and is considered a processed food with little nutritional value.
Though it lacks nutrition, cornstarch is a highly multifunctional ingredient. It is not only used in foods, but also in commercial products such as batteries, plastics, baby powder and cosmetics.
Cooked Versus Raw Cornstarch
There are both advantages and disadvantages of eating raw versus cooked commercial cornstarch. Raw cornstarch is more difficult to digest than cooked cornstarch. Because of this, eating raw cornstarch may cause stomach upset such as gas and bloating, but it won't raise your blood glucose levels as quickly as eating cooked cornstarch will.
Because of this, eating raw versus cooked cornstarch might be a better option for people with diabetes. That said, an even better carbohydrate option than raw cornstarch for those with diabetes are beans and whole-grain breads and cereals.
Cooking cornstarch also ensures that you kill any harmful bacteria that the corn might have been contaminated with during farming, harvesting or packaging. Between 1998 and 2017, there have been 47 outbreaks of disease, including salmonella, E. coli and norovirus, related to the consumption of corn and corn products in the U.S, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health Benefits of Raw Cornstarch
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one 28-gram serving of unenriched commercial cornstarch contains:
- 107 calories
- 0.3 grams fiber
- 0.1 grams protein
- 0 grams of vitamins A, B12, B6, C, D, E and K
Because it lacks fiber, protein and nutrients, there are very few health benefits to eating raw cornstarch. One benefit is that it is very low in fat, sodium and cholesterol. It is also gluten-free and is a quick source of calories.
Because cornstarch is gluten-free, it can be a healthy alternative to wheat flour for individuals with celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance. Although that's the case, there are more nutritious gluten-free flour options. For example, oat flour contains significantly more fiber, protein and minerals than cornstarch.
Your body digests carbohydrates and turns them into glucose, which serves as fuel for your cells. Fiber, fat and protein prevent spikes in your blood glucose. Because it lacks these nutrients, cornstarch provides your body with energy faster than whole-grain carbohydrates.
This might be useful to you if you are extremely active or underweight. By increasing your calorie and carbohydrate consumption, eating cornstarch might help you replenish your energy stores, so you gain weight quickly.
Health Risks of Cornstarch
Although cornstarch's quick digestibility might be beneficial to athletes, it is unhealthy for people at risk for Type 2 diabetes. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found in December 2015 that consuming starches increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes in U.S. women. The same study showed that eating fiber decreases the risk of the disease.
Whenever you can, try to eat the whole vegetable or grain instead of its processed derivative. Eat whole corn instead of cornstarch or degermed corn flour. This way, you still eat the starch inside the kernels, but you also get fiber, protein and nutrients. Eating one medium ear of corn supplies you with 2 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein and some phosphorus and potassium to boot. It also only has 88 calories.
- Nutrition International: "What Is Pica?"
- American Journal of Human Biology: "A Meta-Analysis of Pica and Micronutrient Status"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 20027, Cornstarch"
- LibreTexts: "5.1: Starch and Cellulose"
- Foods: "Starch Characteristics Linked to Gluten-Free Products"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Whole Grains"
- Corn Refiners Association: "Starches"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Carbohydrate Quality and Quantity and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in US Women"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS)"
- Diabetes UK: "Carbs and Cooking"
- Diabetes Spectrum: "Treatment of Mild Hypoglycemia"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 11167, Corn, Sweet, Yellow, Raw"